If you’ve ever opened a tabloid newspaper for the purpose of instruction, you would have encountered a battery of home truths about immigration. You usually hear these views bleated by the more moronic members of the audience on Question Time, but in such cash-strapped times they are becoming more commonly held.
Immigrants both scrounge for benefits and steal jobs. They hoard social housing and also build houses. They both erode communities and furnish our dinner tables with their food. They spread disease and form our army of nurses and overnight doctors.
The latest furore is over the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the European Union on 1st January 2014. Transitional controls will be lifted, emancipating the Slavic masses to scramble for the English Channel like sperm to an egg. As the argument goes: unless we batten down the hatches, our social infrastructure will implode.
Never mind same-sex hospital wards – it’ll soon be three to a bed. We’d have to start cling- ing onto the trains as they do in India. We’ll be- come sardines packed in tins, like it is for the British ex-pats choosing to live in those ghastly monolithic skyscrapers along the Benidorm coastline.
Importantly, government research finds that migrants have a much lower uptake of both in-work and out-of-work benefits than the national average. They take home lower wages and are under-represented in social housing.
In 2008, a House of Lords Select Committee reported that immigration overall had a net benefit to national income, which in theory means there should be no strain on resources.
Yet immigration does have acutely negative effects for some groups in society, particularly those in low-paid and unskilled occupations.
We should not handicap ourselves in the name of protecting this group. It is much better to understand, improve and harness the qualities they have. Immigrants should not be their easy scapegoat.
The surplus generated by immigration needs to be invested to build the social infra- structure for a larger population. That means more houses, trains, schools and hospital beds.
It may well be the case that we are reaching the optimum population for a country of our size and resources. The government is therefore right to focus on the fewer but more skilled people who want to come to Britain.
However, another argument for entirely pulling up the drawbridge centres on the cul- tural impact of immigration. Integration is a legitimate concern associated with the effects of rapid mass migration. It is somewhat natu- ral for new citizens in a country to coalesce in areas populated with people of similar origin: Poles in East Anglia; Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets; Britons in Alicante.
This is problematic. While these areas are the gratifying wellsprings of multicultural- ism, they can isolate those who lived in these communities before, prompting the stock cliché that they “feel like a foreigner in my own country.” It is an issue to the extent that communities feel divided along linguistic and cul- tural lines. As the natives flee, ghettos and polarisation result, leading to the palpable sense of disunity that you see in many areas of the country today.
If we can consciously build a parasol of strong values under which the individual cultures of local communities reside then we have the basis for a strong nation in the 21st century.
The Olympics were important and timely for the country in this regard. Many were euphoric when Mo Farah, a Somali refugee, won two long-distance golds. He embodied the common, somewhat Protestant, values of hard work, dedication, kindness and respect for others. Hostilities rightfully crumble when people realise their shared values and discount their ephemeral differences.
We devour Indian cuisine and imbibe Russian alcohols; we embrace mass-produced Chinese tat and Swedish flatpack furniture. Being a small wet rock surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean has made it expedient to be open to trade – and by extension different cultures, ideas and dispositions – right through the ages.
There are few more open-minded, tolerant and civilised nations on Earth than Britain. But we’re also a nostalgic people, one that looks proudly on its past achievements: industry, language, our rule of law, not to mention codifying most of the world’s important sports whilst being hopeless at them. Rapid change and scapegoating fuelled by a populist media can lead to hostility and escapism, which are not natural to the British character.
We’re a country equipped for the future, with a people that can speak most of the world’s languages. Britain is expected to be Europe’s largest economy in 2050 mostly because of population growth from immigration.
From someone who has Nordic, African and Spanish heritage, I hope the national debate starts to trumpet the good aspects of immigration, places its many challenges in a more realistic context and remembers that homo sapiens are a nomadic species with no natural monopoly on any part of the world’s land.